The fight over extending the payroll tax cut is as interesting to watch for the political rhetoric pitched by pols as it is for the actual arguments. Watch the debate sometime via C-Span and you’ll get the idea that the opposing side ought to not only be defeated, but tarred, feathered and tossed out of town. It got me thinking about the long history of political rhetoric and demagoguery. It’s nothing new, and the tone has not gotten worse, as solemn comfortable, white-haired pundits like to tell us. One of the more (in)famous examples comes 1950, where the Washington Post reported on the 1950 U.S. Senate race in Florida: It’s Just Fantasy — Not Fascist , By Stewart Alsop , Washington Post; Apr 2, 1950; p. B5:
“The political enemies of Senator Claude Pepper of Florida are said to have hit on a remarkable device. Throughout the Florida backwoods, according to a story going the Washington rounds, the unfortunate Senator is being described in the following spine-chilling terms:
“Why, J. Edgar Hoover…the whole FBI and every member of Congress knows that Claude Pepper is” — a breathless pause — “a shameless extrovert. Moreover, there is reason to believe that he practices nepotism with his sister-in-law, and that his sister has been a thespian in sinful New York. Finally — and this is hard to believe — it is well known that before Pepper was married he regularly practiced” — a more breathless pause — “celibacy.”
“As far as is known, although he is certainly uninhibited; and was certainly once a bachelor, the Senator has never employed a sister-in-law, and his sister has never been an actress. Yet denials will do no good. And among those Florida voters with limited vocabularies, there is said to be much honest indignation at these horrifying revelations. The Pepper forces are seriously worried.”
They had good reason — The”matriculating” Pepper was defeated on election day by George Smathers, who until his dying day denied being behind the verbal smear campaign.
I have one more example of political demagoguery, and though it’s from 1949, it’s quite similar to what we hear today. It’s an attack on President Harry Truman, put into the congressional record, by GOP Rep. Clarence J. Brown, R-Ohio. Brown’s response to a speech by Truman was delivered in verse. From the November 4, 1949 New York Daily News, (courtesy of Standard-Examiner reader Jean L. Morrison of Mountain Green) here is “Ode to the Welfare State”:
DEMOCRATIC DIALOGUE: “Father, must I go to work?
No, my lucky son
We’re living on Easy Street
On dough from Washington
We’ve left it up to Uncle Sam,
So don’t get exercised
Nobody has to give a damn –
We’ve all been subsidized
But if Sam treats us all so well
And feeds us milk and honey
Please, daddy, tell me what the hell
He’s going to use for money
Don’t worry, bub, there’s not a hitch
In this here noble plan –
He simply soaks the filthy rich
And helps the common man
But father, won’t there come a time
When they run out of cash
And we have left them not a dime
When things will go to smash?
My faith in you is shrinking, son,
You nosy little brat;
You do too damn much thinking, son
To be a Democrat.
He may not be any great shakes as a poet, but I’m beginning to think the late Rep. Brown may have been a political prophet.